What Child is This?

A newborn infantImage via WikipediaBy Marlene Winell

We can probably agree we don’t like the commercialism of Christmas, the stress, or the holiday angst. Yet at the center of it all there is a powerful image that speaks to all of us –- the Child. It’s fascinating to me that once a year so many people stop everything, or at least pause, to acknowledge a Child.

But who is this Child of Christmas and why does the image have such power? We have religious and secular interpretations, and I would like to suggest a third -– a soulful interpretation.

For Christians, this is a specific Child, the baby Jesus, entering the world to be its savior. This is why the angels sing and the wise men visit. God has at last fulfilled his promise, and there is rejoicing.

For other people, not Christian, the Christ Child still represents hope and renewal. As with the solstice and the new year, the Child symbolizes the promise of new life and light. Our world is so weary with struggles, we all need the healing force of hope.

We have these religious and secular interpretations, and I would like to suggest a third –- a soulful interpretation.

The Child archetype connects to each of us in a personal way as well. We were all children once and we can perhaps remember the innocence and freedom. It’s good to ask ourselves whether we still know how to laugh and enjoy life. The image of a baby instinctively raises questions, and brings up feelings.

On the deepest level, the Child connects to matters of the soul, which is the essence of how we actually experience being alive.

When new parents talk about holding a newborn, they talk of a “miracle” with overwhelming feelings. Anyone can have these feelings about a baby, and there is a tug on something deep within. What is that? This is our core, our Original Child, our personal manifestation of the archetype, alive deep inside.

This is not the Christ child or just a symbol of hope. This is the Child we all know is still present but may be lost or buried. Our life patterns, our “personalities,” our many roles, our anxieties, our regrets, our plans, our endless thoughts, all conspire to distance us from who we once were – infants with magical capability for presence and joy.

The author of the paper, “The Infant as Reflection of Soul,” William Schafer, says “Babies by their very existence call us back to something we all sense we have lost. They do not enchant us simply because they are ‘cute.’” He says infants frequently hint that they are capable of experiences we no longer commonly enjoy – original experiences of energy, openness, and joy. In early infancy, Schafer says, these are profoundly essential human spiritual experiences. The pure, calm awareness of a baby is free of internal commentary, judgment, comparison, fear, or desire.

Interestingly, in the spiritual Balinese culture, babies are not allowed to touch the ground for the first year of life. They are considered closer to God than adults. In any culture, one only needs to look into an infant’s eyes to see a being that is absolutely in the present, that has no agenda whatsoever, that is open to the simple miracle of being alive. This delight is pure and plain in a smile, a look, a wriggle of total energy. The ego has not emerged; there is just being. Worries about the past and concerns for the future do not exist; the moment is timeless, endless. In Schafer’s terms, infant joy of this kind is the natural, inevitable consequence of presence.

In contrast, adults experience split-second judgments that erode the capacity for joy. If we have a bad experience, we can’t wait for it to end. If we have a good one, we want more of it and we worry that it might stop. Either way, joy—the sense of being open and drawn to our actual experience in wonder and curiosity without fear or repulsion—is veiled. We end up living lives in which most of our time is spent wanting to be in some other moment than the present one.

But if we choose, we can learn from infants. We need to see them with new eyes and let them be our teachers. We can let them remind us of what we have lost. Each of us is still innocent, life-loving, and capable of the soulfulness we see in infants’ eyes. And part of the archetype of the Child is the capability of great transformation.

So this season, let’s consider what it might mean to honor the Child – first of all in ourselves, and then in each other. We can slow down and look around. We can be gentle, making room for magic. Enjoy the pattern of raindrops on the windshield while stuck in traffic or laugh at the funny ringtone on somebody’s cell phone. We can remember that we are all connected. We can allow ourselves to feel joy for no reason. For me, I plan to cherish every chance to look into the eyes of a young Child. I expect I will learn something I can use when I look out of my own Child eyes. I will practice delight.

Reference: Schafer, W. (2004). The infant as reflection of soul: The time before there was a self. Journal of Zero to Three. National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, 24: 3, pp. 5-8.

Marlene Winell, Ph.D., is a psychologist and former fundamentalist who specializes in recovery from harmful religion. She is the author of Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion. Her website is www.marlenewinell.net.

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